Throne of Blood (蜘蛛巣城 Kumonosu-jō?, literally, “Spider Web Castle”) is a 1957 Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa. The film transposes the plot of William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth to feudal Japan, with stylistic elements drawn from Noh drama.
Generals Miki and Washizu are Samurai commanders under a local lord, Lord Tsuzuki, who reigns in the castle of the Spider’s Web Forest. After defeating the lord’s enemies in battle, they return to Tsuzuki’s castle. On their way through the thick forest surrounding the castle, they meet a spirit, who foretells their future. The spirit tells them that today Washizu will be named master of the North Castle and Miki will now command Fort One. She then foretells that Washizu will eventually become Lord of Forest Castle, and finally she tells Miki that his son will also become lord of the castle.
When the two return to Tsuzuki’s estate, he rewards them with exactly what the spirit had predicted. As Washizu discusses this with Asaji, his wife, she manipulates him into making the second part of the prophecy come true by killing Tsuzuki when he visits. Washizu kills him with the help of his wife, who gives drugged sake to the lord’s guards, causing them to fall asleep. When Washizu returns in shock at his deed, Asaji grabs the bloody spear and puts it in the hands of one of the three unconscious guards. She then yells “murder” through the courtyard, and Washizu slays the guard before he has a chance to plead his innocence.
Tsuzuki’s vengeful son Kunimaru and an advisor to Tsuzuki (and rival of Washizu) named Noriyasu both suspect Washizu as the murderous traitor and try to warn Miki, who refuses to believe what they are saying about his friend. Washizu, though, is unsure of Miki’s loyalty, but he wants to trust his friend and he still plans to let Miki’s son be his heir, since he and Asaji have been unable to bear a child of their own.
Washizu plans to tell Miki and his son about his decision at a grand banquet, but Asaji tells him that she is pregnant, which leaves him with a quandary concerning his heir, as now Miki’s son has to be eliminated. During the banquet Washizu drinks sake copiously because he is clearly agitated, and at the sudden appearance of Miki’s ghost, begins losing control. In his delusional panic, he reveals his betrayal to all by exclaiming that he is willing to slay Miki for a second time, going so far as unsheathing his sword and striking over Miki’s mat. Asaji, attempting to pick up the pieces of Washizu’s blunder, tells the guests that he is drunk and that they must retire for the evening. Then one of his men arrive with the severed head of Miki. The guard also tells them that Miki’s son escaped.
Later, distraught upon hearing of his wife’s miscarriage and in dire need of help with the impending battle with his foes, he returns to the forest to summon the spirit. She tells him that he will not be defeated unless the very trees of Spider’s Web forest rise against the castle. Washizu believes this is impossible and is confident of his victory. Washizu knows he must kill all his enemies, so he tells his troops of the last prophecy, and they share his confidence.
He then finds Asaji in a semi-catatonic state, trying to wash clean the imaginary foul stench of blood from her hands, obviously distraught at her grave misdeeds. Distracted by the sound of his troops moving outside the room, he investigates and is told by a panicked soldier that the trees of Spider’s Web forest “have risen to attack us.” The prophecy has come true and Washizu is doomed.
As Washizu tries to get his troops to attack, they remain still. Finally they turn on their master and begin firing arrows at him to appease Miki’s son and Noriyasu. Washizu finally succumbs to his wounds just as his enemies approach the castle gates. It is revealed that the attacking force is using trees cut down during the previous night to disguise and protect themselves in their advance on the castle.
The castle exteriors were built and shot high up on Mt. Fuji. The castle courtyard was constructed at Toho’s Tamagawa studio, with volcanic soil brought from Fuji so that the ground would match. The interiors were shot in a smaller Tokyo studio. The forest scenes were a combination of actual Fuji forest and studio shots in Tokyo. Washizu’s mansion was shot in the Izu peninsula.
In Kurosawa’s own words, “It was a very hard film to make. We decided that the main castle set had to be built on the slope of Mount Fuji, not because I wanted to show this mountain but because it has precisely the stunted landscape that I wanted. And it is usually foggy. I had decided that I wanted lots of fog for this film… Making the set was very difficult because we didn’t have enough people and the location was so far from Tokyo. Fortunately, there was a U.S. Marine Corps base nearby and they helped a great deal; also a whole MP battalion helped us out. We all worked very hard indeed, clearing the ground, building the set. Our labor on this steep fog-bound slope, I remember, absolutely exhausted us; we almost got sick.”
Washizu’s famous death scene, in which his own archers turn upon him and fill his body with arrows, was in fact performed with real arrows, a choice made to help Mifune produce realistic facial expressions of fear. The arrows seen to impact the wooden walls were not superimposed or faked by special effects, but instead shot by choreographed archers. During filming, Mifune waved his arms, ostensibly because his character was trying to brush away the arrows embedded in the planks; this indicated to the archers the direction in which Mifune wanted to move.
- Stephen Prince, The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa (Princeton University Press, 1991),142-147.
- Donald Richie. “Kurosawa on Kurosawa.” Sight and Sound, Spring-Summer and Fall-Winter, 1964.
- Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: 1999. ISBN 1-57322-751-X, p. 519.
- Derek Malcolm. Akira Kurosawa: Throne of Blood. March 4, 1999.guardian.co.uk. November 19, 2008